What if? Our reefs die

Apart from divers or snorkellers who love to admire their beauty and the fish that live in and around their crevices, why should anyone else be bothered about whether the world’s coral reefs live or die?

Your average land dweller never gets to see a coral reef, unless it’s on a nature channel, online or in a book. They’re just clumps of rocks with some weird stuff growing on them, right?

Wrong.

To understand how important coral reefs are, one first needs to understand what that weird stuff actually is. Coral reefs are made from calcium carbonate that’s created by corals, which are colonies of miniscule animals.

Coral reefs are the most diverse, and oldest, eco-systems on Earth and support huge populations of sea life.

Corals, even those stony, spiny, hard looking ones are all alive, or rather, they should be. The sad fact is that much of the world’s coral is dying or already dead.

Coral reefs cover less than one tenth of one per cent of the surface of the world’s ocean, yet support more than one-quarter of all marine species. They are threatened on many sides – by global warming, storms, acidification, sedimentation, nutrient runoff, overgrowth by algae, pollution, careless divers, and overfishing.

Some scientists, citing growing amounts of carbon dioxide the oceans are absorbing, have given coral reefs a mere 20 years to live.

The sudden disappearance of sea urchins from the deep waters of the Caribbean in the 1980s had a detrimental effect on a lot of coral reefs. Overfishing had led to more algae growth since there were not enough fish to eat the algae, leaving the sea urchins as the only creatures that could handle all that algae. When they died out following 1982’s El Niño, the algae took over, suffocating the coral.

The invasive lionfish is also a threat, similar to overfishing. This venomous fish, which started appearing on Cayman’s reefs in recent years, have voracious appetites and its favourite meal is juvenile fish – lots of them. No baby fish eventually means no adult fish, which means no fish – nothing to eat the algae.

Coral reefs protect our coastlines, slowing strong waves that pound the shore. Without them, we are more vulnerable to hurricanes and coastline properties would be at higher risk.

Fisheries also depend on them as coral reefs act as nurseries for juvenile fish who grow to maturity in their shelter. Fish account for about 10 per cent of the world’s food. Without coral reefs, we wouldn’t be ordering so much fish.

The health of Cayman’s coral reefs are being assessed as part of a Darwin Initiative research programme, conducted by the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, along with the UK’s Bangor University and The Nature Conservancy. They’re looking at how effective the marine protected areas system are in Cayman.

Just under 17 per cent of Cayman’s marine areas are protected. According to international standards, the ideal amount is about 30 per cent.

Speaking at a press briefing last year to announce the launch of the project, John Turner, senior lecturer at Bangor University’s School of Ocean Sciences, explained that losing the reefs would have a major environmental and economic impact.

“If these systems lack resilience, then economic losses incur as property and critical infrastructure become insecure, fish catches reduce, other species and habitats such as turtles, seabirds, sea grasses and mangroves decline, and tourism revenue is lost.”

Simply put, if our reefs die, the world would be a poorer, less beautiful, 
fish-free place.

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